Early Cadillacs established a high standard


February 05, 2006|By MALCOM GUNN


Cutting edge.

Two separate thoughts that might never have been joined had it not been for a brilliant engineer and the slogan "Standard of the World."

And before the brand seemed to take on the image of excess in the 1950s, the company was really all about success and the landmark innovations that made it all possible. Let's take you back . . .

It's entirely appropriate that Cadillac, one of the best-known and longest-running marques in the 100-plus-year history of the automobile, should be named for the founder of Detroit. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a French army lieutenant, established an outpost beside the Detroit River in 1701. Similarly, the pioneering car company that bears his name dates back to the earliest days of the automobile.


William Murphy launched Cadillac in 1902 as part of the Detroit Automobile Company. But it was Henry Leland, a brilliant engineer with a background as tool and gear maker and former Civil War-era gunsmith, who was responsible for putting the company on the map. Leland replaced none other than Henry Ford as the mechanical brains of the operation and he immediately set about applying his skills to design the car's running gear. Leland's early efforts included the 1903 10-horsepower single-cylinder Model A (not to be confused with Ford's later creation) as well as a limited number of four-cylinder cars two years later.

In those days, engines were individually built: the parts from one motor would not exactly fit into another of the same size and type. Leland's skills as a machinist changed all that. His breakthrough in parts interchangability resulted in Cadillac being awarded England's prestigious Dewar's Cup in 1908. The yearly prize was given by Sir Thomas Dewar to the company deemed to have made the most significant contribution to the advancement of the automobile industry.

Winning the Dewar's Cup gave Cadillac considerable bragging rights as the first American-based manufacturer so honored, and Leland was hailed in the fledgling auto industry as the "master of precision."

From 1903-'08, more than 16,000 one-cylinder Cadillacs (at $800 per copy) were sold, making it the second most popular North American car on the market, behind Oldsmobile but ahead of Ford, which was about to launch the Model T.

However, in a decision that was to change the course of the company, single-cylinder models were dropped in 1909 in favor of four-cylinder power. Then, a new Cadillac (the brand was part of the General Motors group) cost more than twice that of a one-cylinder model, vaulting it into the luxury automobile class, virtually overnight.

In the next five years, the four-cylinder Cadillac Model 30 was the company's mainstay, incorporating many of Leland's inventions, including electric lights and an electric starter (for which it would win the Dewar's cup a second time).

By 1915, other premium models had adopted more powerful and smoother-operating inline six-cylinder engines and Cadillac sales plummeted in the face of increasing competition. The pressure was on.

Leland, in his typical inventive fashion, had ideas of his own. He had been impressed with an earlier V-8 engine pioneered by De Dion, a french car builder, and in late 1914 Cadillac launched the Type 51 that incorporated De Dion's design. The 70-horsepower Type 51 became the first mass-produced V-8 American car and was a huge hit with buyers. At a base price of around $2,000, it was also considered a relative bargain compared to the pricier Packards and Pierce-Arrows.

From 1915-'29, V-8s would continue as Cadillac's primary power source, but Lawrence Fisher, the division's general manager in 1925, was intent on overtaking Packard as the preferred vehicle of the rich and famous. Under a strict secrecy, Fisher set about to create a V-16 Cadillac as a separate and distinct luxury car. Despite the onset of the Great Depression, these enormous cars, which generated around 170 horsepower and cost between $5,000 and $10,000, sold a respectable 3,250 copies in the first two years of production.

Cadillac also introduced both V-8 and V-12 models mounted on a smaller chassis in 1931. However, a deteriorating economy nearly spelled the end for the V-16 with a mere 56 cars delivered in 1934. The less expensive V-8 Cadillacs sold in relative abundance throughout the 1930s, helping keep the name alive while other high-end manufacturers faltered. What also helped Cadillac survive was its lengthy list of technological innovations, including the first synchromesh transmission, vacuum-assisted brakes, independent front suspension and "no-draft" ventilation (small pivoting windows beside each windshield pillar that allowed fresh air inside).

In 1936, a newly-designed V-8 was installed in the Series Sixty (pictured). This 346 cubic-inch engine put out 135 horsepower and was considered so durable that many army tanks were powered by the design.

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